The Magic Academy, Kingdom of Tristain, 18th Day of Feoh
Suleiman could hear the voices. They were distant, faded, as if he were listening through a very heavy door.
"…ing like that!"
He could feel himself waking up, the voices becoming clearer.
Then it hit him.
A long, low moan erupted from his dry, foul-tasting mouth. His head felt as if some malignant spirit was remodelling the interior with a sledgehammer.
"Ah!" proclaimed a voice from his left, the sound reverberating between his ears and making his headache even worse. "The kraken wakes!"
"That's pretty mean, Louise," admonished another voice. This one was deeper, more masculine, than the one before.
"Miss Louise!" wailed another female voice. "He's suffering!"
"He's hung-over!" retorted the first voice, apparently unimpressed. "Really Tiffania! Summoning a drunkard for your familiar!"
"And who are you to criticize?" demanded the male voice. "You're the one who talked her into summoning him!"
Suleiman's eyes fluttered open. He could see the figures standing nearby; two were blurs of white and grey, the other of blue. He tried to rise, opening his mouth to speak, but only a dry croaking came out.
"No don't!" exclaimed a high-pitched voice. One of the blurs was upon him in a flash, pressing him back down with hands as soft as silk. "Don't try to get up! Oh you poor thing!"
As his vision cleared, Suleiman forgot the pain in his head. He was spellbound by the face looking down at him, the face of the angel that had drawn him through the portal.
"Let that be a lesson to you!" barked the other female voice, the sounds reverberating inside his head like the blows of a hammer. Suleiman turned his aching head, and saw the same pink-haired girl he had seen before, staring down at him with a look of undisguised contempt. "You must amend your drunkenness!"
"Uh, Louise," interjected the male voice. "Don't we have something more important to ask him?"
Suleiman finally saw the source of that voice. It was a young man of about his own age, with black hair and skin noticeably darker than that of the two young women. His face reminded Suleiman of the horse nomads who inhabited the northern steppes. He was also dressed differently; whereas the two girls wore buttoned white shirts and dark grey pleated skirts, the boy wore a long-sleeved blue and white coat reaching to his waist.
"Yes Saito, we do." The pink-haired girl, who was apparently named Louise, loomed over Suleiman. "Who and what are you?"
Suleiman tried to answer, but his throat betrayed him once again, and his throbbing head could not seem to fashion the words.
"Damn your wine-sodden eyes!" the girl cursed. "Where is Siesta with that pick-me-up?!"
"Here, Miss Valliere!" The door opened to admit a black-haired young woman with a cheery disposition. She wore a black dress, covered by a long white apron, while a white hairband crowned her head. Balanced effortlessly on one hand was a silver tray, upon which sat a glass full of a dubious-looking substance. Suleiman could see where this was going, and he wasn't sure he liked the idea.
"At last!" Louise sneered. "Administer it at once!"
"Miss Louise, are you sure about this?" pleaded the angel named Tiffania, looking nervously at the glass. "Is it safe to drink?"
"Fear nothing, Miss Westwood!" Siesta proclaimed cheerfully. "This will have the young sir up and about before you know it!" She held out the tray to Suleiman, an expectant look on her face. It took Suleiman's addled brain a few moments to realise what was expected of him. Reasoning that it couldn't be worse than the current state of his head, Suleiman took the glass in an unsteady hand and downed it in one swallow.
His eyes bulged as his throat erupted in pain, burning as if he had swallowed powdered ginger.
"Gah!" he bellowed. "Are you trying to poison me?!"
"Is young sir feeling better now?" the maid asked, beaming.
Suleiman was about to tell her just what he thought of her pick-me-up, when he realised that the dull fog clouding his mind was gone. The pain in his head had receded, but a strange itching, almost stinging sensation in his chest remained.
"It worked…" he said, blinking as he took in his surroundings. The walls were whitewashed, with wainscots of dark wood decorated with rose carvings. There were two wardrobes, a dresser, and a table and chairs, all made of the same wood. He was lying in a large four-poster bed, the curtains tied back.
A horrible thought occurred. Suleiman glanced frantically around the room, panic rising in his chest. His eyes fell on the table, and a familiar-looking bundle lying on it. The girls cried out in surprise as he leapt from the bed and darted to the table. Sure enough it was his pack, the head of his sitar poking out of the top as it always did. Dreading what he might find inside, Suleiman tore the pack open.
The panic faded. His beloved sitar was intact. So relieved was he, that he barely noticed the red-scabbarded scimitar lying on the table next to it. As important as the sword was, it could not compare to his sitar.
"Is everything okay?" the boy named Saito asked, sounding a little worried. "I promise we didn't touch anything."
"It's all right," Suleiman said, feeling his heart slow. "I was afraid it was damaged." He turned to face them, his eyes falling upon Tiffania. There was something so very captivating about those enormous blue eyes, and that look of almost maternal tenderness. It reminded him of a time long past, when all was gentle, and there was nothing to fear.
It was only then that he noticed the enormous white hat covering most of her head. It was strange to see, for Suleiman was quite sure he had seen her without it.
Yes, he had seen her without it. That night, when he had fallen through that strange…whatever-it-was. He remembered seeing it in the street, while Majid was…
"Majid!" he exclaimed, his heart clenching as he realised. "Where is Majid?!"
"Who?!" Saito asked, taken by surprise. "Hey, slow down a minute!"
"Majid!" Suleiman was in a blind panic. He grabbed his boots, which were standing by the dresser, and began to pull them on. "I have to find Majid!"
"You're going nowhere!" Louise swept around the table to stand between him and the door. "A familiar can't just up and leave his master!"
"Familiar?!" Suleiman was incredulous. "Master?! What're you talking about?!"
"Tiffania summoned you!" Louise barked, jabbing her finger at Tiffania. "Therefore you are her familiar! Even a half-elf like you should understand that!"
A cold shard ran through Suleiman's heart. His hands flew to his exposed ears, though his secret was already out.
"You don't understand!" he pleaded, pulling the strip of cloth from his pocket, where it had mercifully remained, and began to tie his ears back. "I have to find Majid!"
"No, you don't understand!" Louise stormed over to Saito and grabbed his left hand. Ignoring his shout of protest, she held the hand up. Suleiman could see the strange signs carved into it.
"These runes mark Saito as my familiar!" Louise explained, full of noble hauteur. "The runes on your chest mark you as Tiffania's familiar! Look for yourself if you don't believe me!"
Suleiman unfastened his jacket, a cold knife twisting in his gut. He pulled his shirt open and, sure enough, there were those same signs.
"You see," Louise said. "Now, no more of this leaving nonsense."
"Louise!" Saito snapped. "We can't force him to stay! Not if he needs to find someone!"
"What do you mean?!" Louise shrieked, rounding on him. "He's Tiffania's familiar! This is where he belongs!"
Suleiman did not hear their argument. He was staring down at the runes, at the marks carved into his living flesh as if it were marble.
He was marked, branded. They were the stigmata of his mistake, a permanent reminder of his folly. Now, once and for all, he knew the price of incaution.
If he tried to leave, would they let him? Would the fact that he was a reasoning, feeling person matter in the slightest? And even if he could fight his way out, could he hope to find Majid? Was his faithful servant, his friend, even alive? Would he want to be with him anymore, after being abandoned like that?
His shoulders slumped. He shuddered, his breath catching as a lump rose in his throat.
"It's all right," said an angelic voice. "Please don't cry."
Suleiman opened his mouth to deny it, then felt the tears on his face. He looked up, and saw Tiffania's gentle smile.
"There's nothing to fear. You see…" Tiffania took off her hat, and Suleiman's heart skipped a beat as he saw her ears, the same ears he saw every time he looked in a mirror.
The ears he had seen that night.
"Yeah, about that," Saito said awkwardly, massaging the back of his head.
"I never thought it would happen." Tiffania's smile was pure and bright, and Suleiman could have sworn there were tears in her eyes. "I never thought I'd meet another…like me."
"Another?" Suleiman thought. "Are half-Elves so rare in these lands?"
His eyes fell on hers, and it was as if her soul was reaching to him, drawing him in. He could not move, let alone resist, as Tiffania stepped forward to enfold him in her arms.
"It's all right." Her voice was sweet music, so close to his ear. "I'll take care of you. I'll help you find your friend."
Suleiman wanted to say something. He wanted to impress her, to thank her, to show her the grace he'd been raised to. But no words would come. He could only relax into her embrace, sliding his arms around her slim waist to press her closer.
He did not see the triumphant looks Louise and Siesta were giving him.
Grand Troyes Palace, Lutece, Kingdom of Gallia
It really was an impressive map.
The green hills and valleys of Halkeginia undulated across the table before him, the mountains rising craggy and grey. Rivers, lakes, and even seas of reflective glass glittered in the sunlight streaming in through the windows. Miniature towns and cities speckled the landscape, connected by tiny silver roads. The man who had made it was now a count, with a substantial estate in the Auvergne. Joseph de Gallia sometimes marvelled at what his subjects could create when he offered sufficient incentive.
Most in his court thought it a bauble, a mere toy for their incompetent and foolish King to amuse himself with. But as with so many other things they saw only what he wished them to see. The map was not only beautiful, it was also very useful.
Joseph's smile widened as he took in the clusters of figures placed here and there about the display. The toy soldiers representing his armies and those of his neighbours, his air and naval fleets likewise represented by little toy ships. His eyes gazed proudly upon the fleets clustered at Brest, Toulon, Harfleur, and La Rochelle, the fortresses at Alhambra, Bayonne, Besancon, Briancon, and Verdun. Fifty airships of the Royal fleet, one hundred and twenty warships of the Marine Royale, fifty thousand troops in his garrisons, and money and officers to raise three times as many more.
What could a man not dream of if he commanded such strength? What might a man seek if he were King of Gallia?
"A moment of remorse?"
What he truly wanted, no armies or fleets could give him. What his unhappy heart yearned for, all the money in the world could not buy.
Joseph reached into his box of playing pieces, fingering through them for one piece in particular. Finding it, he drew out a simple human figurine, made of solid silver, and held it up to the light.
"Miodaitnir," he whispered, to the empty room around him. "I would look upon you."
"Sorry for keeping you waiting," replied a familiar voice from the shadows. "My lord Joseph."
Joseph turned to regard Miodaitnir, otherwise known as Sheffield. Her lithe form was pleasing to his eye, as were those raptor-like eyes, but her skill at magic pleased him even more, as did her ability to get certain things done. There were few he valued quite so much as her.
"Come Miodaitnir," he gestured towards the table. "Come see the world."
Sheffield stood up, still smiling, and sashayed over to the map table. Joseph stepped around it, standing next to Tristain.
"Do you know, Miodaitnir, what my daughter told me this morning?"
"No, my lord."
"She…regretfully informed me that the young Arysian has managed to give her the slip, and in a most unusual way."
"He escaped…through a summoning portal." He glanced sideways at Miodaitnir, his smile widening. "You know what this means, don't you?"
"The Void user," Sheffield breathed. "Lifdrasir."
"Indeed." Joseph held up the silver figurine for her to see. "All four are now in play. But where, I wonder?" He glanced around the map. "We have Gandalfr in Tristain, Windalfr in Romalia, and you here in Gallia, leaving…"
"Albion, indeed." Joseph leaned over towards the island, making to put the silver figurine down, then hesitated.
"Unless…" he glanced up at Miodaitnir, "you know something."
"A…possibility, my Lord."
"Something I discovered in Albion, my lord." Sheffield's brow furrowed. "Regarding Archduke John and his elvish mistress."
"I know that story, Miodaitnir."
"There was a child, my lord."
"I see." Joseph straightened up, and then chuckled at the thought of it. "Well, I knew it could not be Marcillac, or any of the others. What know you of this child?" Sheffield took a deep breath.
"I know, my lord, that Valliere and her companions were up to something in the Westwood," she said, her voice almost hoarse with the enormity of what she was about to say. "And that Henrietta sent a ship to collect them afterwards."
"Yes." Joseph chuckled again, placing the silver figurine in Tristain. "What a lucky little Queen. Now she has two Void mages at her disposal; and one of them with a better claim on the throne of Albion than she and the incumbent combined."
"My lord!" Sheffield fell to her knees. "Please forgive me! Had I not failed to capture Valliere…!"
"It's all right, Miodaitnir." Joseph stepped away from the table to stand in front of Sheffield, placing a fatherly hand on her head. "There will be more opportunities."
"My lord is so kind to me." Sheffield took his hand and pressed it to her porcelain-smooth cheek. Joseph smiled, allowing her that small pleasure. It made her happy, and he did not begrudge her happiness.
"Marcillac is a nonentity," he said, turning back to the table, allowing the smile to fall from his face. "He calls himself Regent, yet merely enacts the will of his master the Emperor, while Margrave Handenburg and twenty thousand troops keep him in power. Even if little Henrietta could deal with Handenburg and his army, she could not handle the Emperor."
"They say he's dying, my lord."
"And if he does, we won't have to worry about Germania for a good while, but little Henrietta will still have to worry about us."
"My lord." Sheffield stood up again. "Please allow me to go after Valliere one more time. I know how vital she is to your plans."
"You can go, Miodaitnir, but not for the moment." He turned to face her again. "We'll leave them a while, let them think they safe. I want you to go and check on Jormugandr for me, and ensure our pointy-eared friend is keeping up his end of the bargain." He cupped her narrow chin in his fingers. "Can you do that for me?"
"Of course, my lord."
The Magic Academy, Kingdom of Tristain
Suleiman did his best to look suitably noble and self-assured. This was rather difficult, as his stomach was currently trying to escape via his throat.
He was standing in front of the Headmaster's desk, Tiffania beside him. The office around them was in much the same style as the room he had woken up in, and sparsely furnished but for the long, broad desk in front of him, and some wardrobes along the walls. Suleiman was mildly surprised by this. In Arysia he would have greeted a guest in his selamlik, a place of wealth and welcome. Yet here he was, standing in front of a desk like a supplicant.
Which he pretty much was.
Suleiman glanced at Tiffania, and his heart ached to see the fear in her eyes. That in itself was a surprise, for he had known her only a few short hours. It was true that had been kind to him, but he couldn't just care about someone, just like that.
"So, you are the new familiar," the very old man seated at the desk said. He had very long white hair and a long white moustache and beard. Small, piercing eyes gazed out at him from under a heavy brow lined with bushy white eyebrows. "I am Headmaster Osman. Welcome to our academy."
His tone was pleasant, almost grandfatherly, and Suleiman felt his fear recede. Perhaps was there was nothing to fear from this old man.
"Miss Westwood." Osman turned his attention to Tiffania. "You are a third-year student, but the rules of the academy require that Familiars be summoned during the formal ceremony."
"I…I am sorry, Headmaster!" Tiffania wailed. "I…I just wanted my Familiar so badly." She lowered her head, and Suleiman saw her lip wobbling. "Everyone is so happy with their familiars. I thought it would be…so wonderful."
"Have no fear child," the Headmaster said kindly. "No great harm has been done, and you were led astray by Miss Valliere in any case. Don't bother trying to deny it."
Suleiman suppressed a chuckle. Osman was either quite astute or knew his students very well. But there was another question; why would Louise have manipulated Tiffania into summoning him? And what did it mean for him to be a familiar?
"The real surprise," Osman went on, "was that you were able to summon a familiar at all. That is, until I saw that your Familiar is a boy. There is only one explanation."
"Begging your pardon, Headmaster," Suleiman spoke up. "But I do not understand. What does it meant to be a familiar?"
Osman paused, seemingly surprised by the question.
"It would take a little while to explain," he said. "Might I at first know your name, young man?"
"I am Suleiman Reza Al-Karim," Suleiman introduced himself, bowing his head in respect.
"A fine name," Osman commented. "Though I must ask…are you by any chance from the Rub'al Khali?"
"I am from Arysia, Headmaster, which is beyond the Elvish lands."
"I see." Osman seemed to be thinking very hard. "I thought that might be the case. The term Al-karim sounds like a dialect of Elvish."
The word Elvish sent a shiver down Suleiman's spine. He was glad of the strip of cloth concealing his pointed ears, and of the hat hiding Tiffania's. Both Saito and Louise had insisted they be hidden, and Suleiman suspected it was with good reason.
"If I understand correctly, it means the meritorious. Am I right?"
"Yes, Headmaster." Suleiman felt himself blush to hear the epithet. He glanced at Tiffania, who was looking at him with wonder in her eyes.
"Ah, excellent." Osman beamed behind his beard. "It would appear that whatever allowed the young Chevalier d'Hiraga to understand our language has also worked in your case. That should make things easier."
"But Headmaster," Suleiman pressed. "Might I ask, why was I summoned?"
"Fate, Mister Suleiman," Osman replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "The spell known as Summon Servant calls the one fated to be the summoner's familiar, be they in this world or another. There is no way to predict it, or to undo it."
Suleiman's heart sank. He felt a little better for knowing that no malice had been intended, but only a little. It did not solve his main problem.
"But…I have a responsibility!" he pleaded, the force of it making Tiffania cry out in surprise. "Majid is waiting for me!"
"Majid, you say?" the old man mused. "A friend of yours?"
"He is my ghulam, my companion!" Suleiman choked back the lump rising in his throat. "I can't abandon him! I can't leave him alone!"
"I see." Osman ran a gnarled hand through his beard. "That complicates things."
"Suleiman." Tiffania turned to face him, taking his hands in hers. "I said I'd go with you, wherever you want to go." Her eyes were full of sympathy, of pity. Suleiman felt as if his heart would burst.
"But…" He faltered, his soul roiling like the ocean in a storm. "I don't even know where to start. It could take months. I…I can't take you away from here."
"I was the one who brought you here," Tiffania insisted, smiling. "I'm responsible for it."
"Perhaps there is another way to handle this," Osman interjected gently. "Mister Suleiman, where did you last see your companion?"
"In Lutece, Headmaster. We were there for the Carnival."
"Ah, the Carnival! That takes me back!" Osman chuckled a particularly dirty chuckle. "But fear not young man. I have certain…influence in Lutece, and also the ear of the Queen. I'm sure her Majesty will be able to help you."
"Headmaster…" Tears of joy welled up in Suleiman's eyes. "How can I express my gratitude?!"
"By staying here with Miss Westwood, in safety." Osman was still smiling, but something shifted in his countenance. "I should warn you, Suleiman. Arysians are all but unknown in Halkeginia, so your presence is bound to attract interest in…certain quarters. I am certain her Majesty would agree that you had best remain here."
"I am grateful, Headmaster." Suleiman bowed again. He opened his mouth to speak again, but faltered as he saw Osman holding his hand up to his wizened ear. Suleiman narrowed his eyes as he focussed on the hand, and saw a small white mouse sitting on it. If he didn't know better, he would've thought it was whispering into the old man's ear.
"White you say?" Osman was agog. "Silk? Oh my!"
Tiffania cried out, clasping her hands to the hem of her skirt and her face flushing red. Only then did Suleiman realise what he was talking about.
Scarlet Tower, Liguria, Romalia
The wind moaned in the distance. The candle flame flickered, casting dancing shadows in the corners of the chamber. The only other sound was the slow, regular crackle of turning pages, followed by the occasional scratch of a quill on paper.
Fernando Sotomayor gazed down at the book before him, his eyes following the elegantly curving script. He was one of only a handful of scholars in the Church, if not all of Halkeginia, who could read it.
He hated the very sight of it. It made his stomach churn, and his blood boil; a reminder of secret, forgotten sorrows. But his will was strong, and his faith stronger. He was one of the Sinceres, one entrusted to peruse such forbidden material. Against the sacred will of the Founder Brimir, mere written words were as ash blowing on the wind.
He smirked. It wasn't even as if the book contained anything truly corruptive. The book was a rather formulaic treatise on alchemical metallurgy, packed with technical information yet lacking in the kind of heretical philosophy or concepts that might lead an unwary reader astray.
Yes. It would be quite safe to translate this one in full. The knowledge of it would be very useful to the order. Very useful indeed.
Fernando heard the low thump of footsteps in the corridor outside. It was late, and everyone in the monastery knew his habits. Whomsoever was about to disturb him was on very important business.
Or a glutton for punishment.
Sure enough, a heavy hand banged three times upon the door. Fernando did not look up, but a flick of his finger set the lock to unlocking.
"Come." The door clunked open, admitting two figures in the red mantles of the order. Fernando knew who they were the moment they stepped over the threshold. Their walks were very familiar.
"Brother Carloman, Sister Charlotte." He glanced up from his work as his two subordinates strode in and halted before his desk, bowing their heads respectfully. "I trust this is…important?"
"The dispatch rider has brought news from Lutece, Grand Master." With his bald, bullet head and chiselled jaw, Carloman the Deathstroke looked as grim as he sounded. He handed a sealed letter over the desk. Fernando took it, noting the order's seal, and tore it open. The silence loomed as he read it. Carloman and Charlotte stared hard at him, both yearning to ask, yet neither daring to speak.
"Things have gotten…complicated," he said, folding the letter and dropping it on the desktop.
"The North Parterre, Grand Master?" Carloman asked bullishly.
"Yes, but not in the way you're thinking," Fernando replied. "It would appear that they attempted to apprehend two…interesting persons during the Carnival. One of them, if this report is correct, disappeared through a summoning portal, while the other made his own escape."
"A summoning portal?" Carloman was incredulous.
"That can mean only one thing," Charlotte said, her eyes hard.
"Yes." Fernando paused a moment, staring at his two principal subordinates. Carloman was no great intellectual, but he was brave, pious, and above all, completely loyal. Charlotte had a soul as pure as spring water, as bright as a freshly-polished blade, as unrelenting as a tidal wave. Never in all his years of pious service had he encountered a spirit quite like hers, a spirit capable of anything the Church required of her.
These two he could trust. Them and Thibault…
"A week ago, I received a letter from our Priory near Toulon," he said. "Two men whom Prior-Commander Hugo believed to be Arysians got off a ship from Tyrus, and headed east towards the Romalian border."
"Arysians?" Carloman's eyes flashed. "Here?"
"But the Toulon road runs just below us!" protested Charlotte. "How could we have missed them?"
Because someone, and I suspect I know who, persuaded or forced them to turn back," replied Fernando sternly. "The two persons described in this letter match the descriptions provided by Prior-Commander Hugo."
"And one of them was summoned," Charlotte breathed. "Grand Master, you have taught me much, but I know of only one explanation."
"As do I, Sister Charlotte." Fernando straightened in his chair. "The fourth Void mage has summoned his or her familiar. The prophecy is in motion."
He sat in silence for a few moments, letting his words sink in, waiting until he was sure they truly understood.
"The Four," Charlotte whispered, her eyes bright with fervour. "The Four are gathering."
"And the North Parterre is interfering!" barked Carloman. "Joseph will ruin everything!"
"He may, at that," Fernando agreed grimly. "But it is too soon to move against him. The Cardinals are still hesitating, and the business in Germania is distracting everyone else."
"Grand Master, let us handle it!" pleaded Carloman. "Your knights are strong enough! If we strike at the right time, and in the right place, we can destroy Joseph and ensure the prophecy! If Thibault is with us, even the North Parterre cannot save him!"
Fernando sighed. He could not bring himself to rebuke Carloman, not with that look in his eyes; that desperate, pleading, yearning look he had first seen a few years before, from beyond a set of prison bars. And he knew what it would mean to Carloman, and to Charlotte, and to all the Chamber Militant, to have Thibault by their side again.
"Brother Carloman, I do not doubt your strength or your sincerity," he said patiently. "But assassinating Joseph is not the answer, not yet at least. We must give him rope, and let him hang himself. In the meantime, we must continue our search for the fourth Void mage."
"Find the Arysian," Carloman said bluntly, "and we find the Void mage."
Fernando smiled at him in a fatherly way. Carloman might not be the intellectual sort, but he was quick on the uptake when it mattered.
"Precisely. Send word to all our priories to be on the lookout." He paused, as he saw how dark the room had become.
"It's getting late." He twitched his finger, and the door unlocked. "You should both attend to Thibault before Compline."
He saw the look in their eyes, the same look as before, as it had always been. Their feelings had not changed, and he suspected - he prayed - they never would.
"Of course, Grand Master," replied Charlotte. The pair bowed their heads, and left him alone with his thoughts.
The Magic Academy, Kingdom of Tristain
"You have to sleep there! You're her familiar!"
"But I can't! It's improper!"
Saito sighed. Just when he thought things were finally under control, Louise had to find something to cause trouble over.
"Louise," he said, in what he hoped was a suitably placatory tone. "He doesn't have to sleep in here if he doesn't want to."
"But this is his master's room!" Louise barked, waving her wand in the air. "As her familiar, it's his duty to sleep on the floor by her bed!"
"But she is not my wife!" protested a panic-stricken Suleiman.
"What's that got to do with anything?!" demanded Louise, ignoring a shriek of hysterical laughter from Siesta, who stood behind her with an armful of straw.
"It's really none of your business Louise," Saito complained. He was getting sick of this.
"Saito!" Louise growled, rounding on her familiar-slash-boyfriend. "Just because I have given you…certain privileges…doesn't mean you can go around giving other familiars ideas! Standards have to be maintained!"
"Oh yeah," Saito grumbled. "Privileges."
Louise had some nerve talking about privileges. They had been sharing a bed for months, yet every time he tried to take things further she got violent. She had even blown him up that night at the palace, after she had promised to let him, and had the gall to call him a water flea. It was enough to make him wish he'd stayed in the forest with Tiffania, except thanks to Louise and Siesta he'd already missed his chance.
"What privileges are these?" Tiffania asked innocently.
"Mister Saito sleeps in Miss Valliere's bed every night!" Siesta proclaimed gleefully. "Though he finds little to satisfy him there!"
Tiffinia squeaked and covered her reddening face. Suleiman stared at Saito in what looked like a mixture of awe and disbelief.
"How dare you?!" Louise screeched, spinning round to loom over the maid; which was quite an achievement considering that Siesta was a head taller than her. "What are you suggesting, you importunate maid?!"
"I was merely suggesting," Siesta replied, her smile intact, "that Suleiman might like to sleep in Miss Westwood's bed, as Mister Saito sleeps in yours!"
"But she is not my wife!" repeated the very embarrassed boy, whose name was apparently Suleiman. "Nor is she my kinswoman! It would be improper!"
"You are a disobedient familiar!" Louise snapped. "Tiffania! Use the riding crop to discipline him!"
"I…!" Tiffania raised the riding crop in a trembling hand, her eyes big and watery. "I…I…I don't want to!"
"You have to!" Louise barked. "Or else he'll be full of himself, like this lecherous beast over here!" She jabbed her wand at Saito.
"Lecherous beast am I?!" Saito snapped, losing his temper. "How about a spoiled little miss who won't keep her promises?!"
"How dare you speak to your master like that!?" Louise shrieked. "I always keep my promises!"
"You promised we could do it that night, then you exploded me!"
"I made no such promise!"
"Strictly speaking she's right," Derflinger commented from his scabbard on Saito's back.
"Belt up Derflinger!"
As the couple continued their argument, Tiffania and Suleiman took the opportunity to slip out into the corridor.
"I'm so sorry, Suleiman," Tiffania said. "I don't understand why Miss Louise is being so hard on you."
"It's all right, Miss Tiffania," Suleiman replied, as kindly as he could manage. His embarrassment was fading, replaced by a seething anger at the way Louise de la Valliere was treating him. It would seem that as a Familiar, he could expect to be treated with contempt. He would not treat a ghulam in such a way, even one who was not Majid.
"Miss Louise is very particular," Tiffania went on. "But Mister Saito is very considerate. I'm sure he'll be willing to help you too."
Suleiman wasn't sure what he thought of Saito Hiraga. He didn't seem to be a bad person, but he didn't seem overly willing to oppose his 'master', at least not for his sake. There was also a strength and competence to Saito that Suleiman found quite intimidating. He was certainly a cut above the effete-looking nobles he had seen around the academy.
"Excuse me, young mistress and master." Both looked up to see Siesta ease herself through the door, her arms still laden with hay. "I take it you will not be requiring the hay?"
"No Siesta, thank you," Tiffania replied. "I'm sorry Miss Louise troubled you with it."
"Think nothing of it, Miss Tiffania." Siesta was smiling cheerfully as she used her foot to pull the door closed, muffling the argument still going on.
"Siesta, do they always argue like this?" Suleiman asked.
"Oh yes, Mister Suleiman!" Siesta proclaimed happily. "Though I imagine the argument will end soon."
A clap of thunder roared from behind the door, reverberating down the corridor. Tiffania cried out; Suleiman yelped, jumping away from the door. He caught Siesta's outstretched foot, and toppled straight into Tiffania, his head plunging into her breasts. In his terror Suleiman clamped his arms around her, burying his face in her bosom.
"Like that, Mister Suleiman," Siesta replied. "Miss Tiffania, please allow me to dispose of this hay, and I shall have another room made up." And with that, she skipped off down the corridor.
"Suleiman." Tiffania stroked his head. "Suleiman, it's all right."
Suleiman managed to straighten up, his face flushed with embarrassment. He felt ashamed of himself for panicking like that, though he had never heard such a terrible sound in all his life, except in a thunderstorm.
"Oh, forgive me!" He backed away, mortified at what where he had put his head, pleasant though it had been. "It was…wrong of me."
"No." Tiffania shook her head, still smiling. "It's all right. You were scared, that's all."
It should have been a shameful thing to hear from a girl, but Suleiman did not feel shame. Something soft and warm had wrapped itself around his heart, and for a moment he wanted nothing more than to gaze into those blue eyes forever and a day. It was a feeling that made him want to sing, and maybe even dance.
"Would you like to…eat dinner with me?" Tiffania held out her hand, and Suleiman thought his heart would jump out of his chest.
"Yes, of course," he replied, feeling foolish. He took her hand, and almost shivered at its warmth and softness. Everything about her was warm and soft.
They walked away together, followed by the angry voice of Louise, and a sound like meat being tenderized.
Compiegne, Kingdom of Gallia
Another foul street, in another foul city.
Majid hunched his shoulders as he trudged along the unpaved street, ignoring the disconcerting squelch-squelch beneath his feet, and the nauseating stench that accompanied it. He pulled his heavy travelling cloak tight around him, both for disguise and for protection. There was no telling what might come flying out of the windows above him, and he didn't particularly feel like having to spend another cold evening washing and drying his clothes.
The bulk of his attention was on the people in the street with him. He could see them leaning on walls, or skulking in the narrow gaps between the houses, alone or in twos or threes, engaged in whatever sort of business occupied such people. Majid had a pretty shrewd idea what that was, and knew not to drop his guard for a moment.
He was tired, damp, footsore from a night and a day spent on the road. When his young master had vanished into that…whatever-it-was, he had been mad with fear, panic-stricken. That blue-haired girl had blathered something about a magic portal, and had started screaming for her big sister.
He had fled. There was nothing else he could do. He had no way of working out where his young master was; be he in Lutece or on the other side of the world. Nor could he stay in Lutece, a city he didn't know, with no ally or protector therein. To run had been the only option, to get away from that strange, blue-haired girl and her mysterious older sister. He had seen too much danger, too many bizarre things, to underestimate a young woman with blue hair and fangs.
He was sure she had fangs.
Thus he had walked, and walked, head lowered against a mercifully light shower. He had not stopped until the sky was beginning to darken, and he found himself on the outskirts of a large town; a garrison town from the looks of it, with short, thick walls and bastions reaching out like the points of a star. A quick word with a passing traveller had revealed its name to be Compiegne, and a coin in the hand of a weary-looking watchman had earned him the name of the town's foremost expert on less-than-orthodox magic.
His destination was a house like any of the others; two floors tall, made of wattle and daub, leaning drunkenly over the street. The only thing to make it stand out was the blue and red rags hanging over the door, a distinction that had cost him a gold coin and several minutes of his life in a particularly malodorous drinking pit.
The door was on the first floor, up a set of dirty and rickety-looking steps. The wooden door rattled as he rapped his gloved knuckles on it. For a moment he thought it might fall in.
For a few moments there was silence, broken by the sound of what might have been shuffling feet. The door creaked open as far as a rusty chain would allow.
"Who's there?" croaked a voice from the musty darkness.
"Is this the house of the wizard Eusebius?" Majid asked dubiously.
"Who wants to know?"
"Someone in need of magical services."
There was a pause, then the chain clinked as it fell free. Majid stepped inside, but could not see who had opened the door.
"What services would those be, monsieur?" Majid snapped his head round, and saw a bent, elderly-looking man with long grey hair standing at the other end of the small room, his thin form swathed in heavy, rough-spun robes. There was a wand in his gnarled hand.
"I need someone found," Majid replied, closing the door with his foot.
"Finding, finding," the old man commented, seating himself on the opposite side of a rough wooden table and gesturing for Majid to do likewise. "Who am I looking for?"
"A friend," Majid replied, pulling a bag of coins from his belt as he sat down. "I can pay you gold up-front."
"Let's see it." Majid opened the bag and dropped a single gold coin on the table; one of the big ones from Romalia. He could've sworn the old man's eyes had bulged at the sight of it. It was probably more money than he saw in a month.
"Well, monsieur, I'll surely do my best for you," the old man said. "Of course, this could be rather tricky, and…rather long-winded."
"I don't care how long it takes or what you have to do!" Majid barked, his tone harsher than he'd intended. "Can you find my y…my friend or can you not?!"
"Well that depends, monsieur." Majid saw the look in the old wizard's eyes, and cursed himself for the slip of the tongue. He might be old, but he was far from senile. "May I ask how you lost your friend?"
Majid gritted his teeth. He could tell that the old man was leading him with the question, but he had no choice.
"He was taken from me," he began awkwardly. He suddenly realised that he didn't really understand what he had seen. "It was…a strange thing, like a circle drawn in light in the air before me. My friend touched it, and suddenly he was gone."
"Ahhh," the old man proclaimed. "A Summoning Circle. Now that is interesting."
"In what way, interesting?" Majid asked suspiciously.
"That depends on what you find interesting," the old mage replied, chuckling. "But it's difficult to explain to a layman. How much do you know about magic?"
Majid tried not to look blank. He knew of magic, of course; living in Arysia he had been surrounded by it every day. But the various practitioners of that magic kept their secrets to themselves, and few would entrust a ghulam with even the simplest knowledge.
"I take that as nothing whatsoever." The man turned and reached into a dusty bookcase, packed with scrolls and grimoires. Majid wrinkled his nose at the cloud of dust blown up as Eusebius withdrew a scroll and unrolled it on the table, pinning it down with a couple of nick-nacks. It showed a pentagram, decorated with writing Majid could not read.
"No one knows where magic comes from, not really," the old man began. "The Church insists that it comes from Brimir's Void, but others think not. What matters is that it enters the world, and manifests in the forms and forces of the natural world." He tapped a gnarled finger on the points of the pentagram. "Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire."
"I don't understand," Majid cut in.
"Of course you don't," the old man scoffed. "There are people with doctorates from Lutece who don't understand. But the fact remains that magic flows into the world, and settles on these elements, and thus we mages are able to employ it. We can interact with the element directly, and thus use magic to affect other substances. Through water, a mage can alter the composition of a potion, or even the functions of the human body."
Majid shivered. In his mind's eye he saw the blood boil in his veins, or the water itself leeched from his flesh, drying and wrinkling before his eyes. Then he remembered that day...
"Don't worry monsieur." The old man laughed a strange, clucking laugh. "There are few who can kill with Water magic, aside from poisoning of course."
"Do not mock me!" Majid shook his head, forcing down the nausea. "How is this relevant?"
"Your friend was drawn through a Summoning Circle," Eusebius went on. "This means that he fell victim to a Summoning Spell."
"This is not a common spell, monsieur. It cannot be cast through the power of the four elements. Rather it is called-upon, a favour left to us by the Founder Brimir in life."
"You say that as if he's some sort of God." Majid's curiosity had gotten the better of him.
"The Church believes that he is God," Eusebius replied, with a strangely dubious air. "That he became one with God upon the death of his mortal body. Regardless, there are a handful of things that can be done by calling out to him, or to his power, in the proper way. Summoning Portals are one of them."
"But who summoned him?" demanded Majid. "And for what purpose?"
"That depends. Some portals open randomly, littering the land with strange objects from other worlds. Such an occurrence is very common in the Holy Land, strangely enough. It may be that your friend was drawn into such a portal by sheer chance, though it seems unlikely. The only other explanation is that was the Summon Servant ritual."
"Summon Servant?" Majid narrowed his eyes.
"A mage summons a familiar as part of his or her training," Eusebius explained. "A familiar is a mage's companion, bound to him by magic and the power of destiny, as ordained by the Founder Brimir."
"Bound?" A cold, sick sensation wrapped itself around Majid's heart. Could such a thing have happened to Suleiman? Had his young master become the plaything of some Halkeginian whelp? Had he become a slave?
"I see that this is not what you want to hear, monsieur." The old man sounded sympathetic. "I can think of no other explanation, but it is certainly strange."
"Strange?" Majid turned again to the wizard. "How?"
"The summoning should only work on animals, monsieur. Occasionally strange creatures are summoned from other places, but for a mage to summon a human familiar is unheard-of. Such a thing has not happened since the Founder's time."
"That's all very well!" Majid snapped, frustration boiling over inside him. "How does this help you find my friend?"
"Not in the slightest."
It took Majid a moment to register what the wizard had said.
"Then what am I paying you for!?" He reached for the gold coin, but a gnarled hand beat him to it.
"Consultation," Eusebius growled. "Besides, I never said I could find your friend, only that I'd do my best for you."
"And much good you've done me!" Majid spat. He felt a fool for having been swindled, but he could not bring himself to rough up an old man over money. "What good are you to me if your magic can't find my friend!?"
"Mine cannot," Eusebius replied, sliding the coin into the sleeve of his robe. "But there are others who can."
"Who, exactly?" Majid was intrigued. Any hope, no matter how slim, was worth clinging to.
"Others who use magic." The old man grinned a gap-toothed grin. "The Firstborn."
"Pari!?" spluttered Majid, catching himself too late. The mage's grin widened.
"I take it you mean the Elves," he said, chuckling. "Well you can try, but what I had in mind was the birdmen of the Ardenne Forest. They're a little more…approachable than the Elves. I'm sure you know what I mean."
"Where can I find them?" Majid asked, ignoring his comment. If Eusebius had figured out that he was an Arysian, there was nothing he could do about it now. "These birdmen?"
"In the Ardenne Forest monsieur, as I said."
"The Ardenne Forest is vast, you old reprobate!" Majid barked. "Even I know that!"
An exaggeration, but he had heard it spoken-of plenty of times in the course of his journey from the south. Eusebius did not reply, but just sat there, grinning at him. Majid rolled his eyes, and dropped another coin onto the table-top.
"Thank you monsieur." The coin vanished into Eusebius' sleeve. "A good place to look for them is the village of Eginheim, in Aldera Province. They're on…remarkably good terms with the birdmen."
"What do you mean by that?"
"That's information monsieur, and good information costs money." He smirked. Majid muttered something very rude in his native tongue, and dropped yet another coin onto the table.
"Tell me everything," he growled. "And this had better be good!"